Have we been here before

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have we been here before

I Have Been Here Before by J.B. Priestley

What does the title I Have Been Here Before conjure up to you? Some kind of memoir ... reminiscenses perhaps? Or a sense of déjà vu? Hold on to that thought.

The author of I Have Been Here Before, J.B. Priestley, is not as well-known for his plays as in previous decades. However, this Yorkshireman was a prolific playwright, author and broadcaster, and his work was very popular during his lifetime. Many people will be familiar with the play “An Inspector Calls”, another of his “Time Plays”, and the one which is probably his masterpiece. In the 1930s and 1940s, the author wrote a series of plays, each dealing with a different concept of time; each play revolving around a different alternative theory. Time itself became the central metaphor. Using this as a theatrical device, in each play each of the characters’ lives is affected by how they react to the unusual events of their particular timescape. Each play is peopled by a small cast, and has an intimate feel.

There are six “Time Plays” in total, and several different theories are propounded through them. The inspiration for I Have Been Here Before was P.D. Ouspensky’s theory of eternal recurrence, which he conceived in his 1931 book, “A New Model of the Universe”. I Have Been Here Before was first performed on the London stage in 1937.

The play starts deceptively innocently, in a small inn called the “Black Bull”, on the remote Yorkshire moors. A conversation ensues between the landlord, Sam Shipley, and his daughter, Sally Pratt, who runs the inn with him. They are preparing the premises for the arrival of three paying guests: three ladies. Into their comfortable domestic world intrudes another visitor; an elderly German professor called Dr. Görtler. Sally begins to apologise, saying that they do not have any room, and Dr. Görtler begins to make strange observations about the guests whom they are expecting, describing them quite specifically, which unnerves Sally and her father. They think he is very odd, especially when Dr. Görtler begins to mumble mysteriously to himself about it being possibly the “wrong year”.

Since his conjectures appear to be wrong, he leaves, to the relief of the proprietors. However this feeling is shortlived, since the three women whom they had been expecting imminently, cancel their bookings by telephone. At first Sally is annoyed at the cancellation, and when almost immediately another booking comes, she welcomes it. A prosperous local businessman, Walter Ormund, and his much younger wife, Janet Ormund, have telephoned to book two separate rooms. Another guest, who is also staying at the inn, enters the scene. He is a schoolmaster, Oliver Farrant, and has just returned from a walk. Three of the four rooms are therefore taken, but there is still a vacancy, because of the third cancellation.

Dr. Görtler has followed the schoolteacher in, as he has seen the young schoolmaster enter. Eagerly, he now asks for a room. Sally is uneasy, but cannot see a reason why not to accept the booking, and the professor introduces himself simply as “a German refugee”.

Later Sally confides her uneasiness to her father, and Sam Shipley replies,

“Nay, what tickled me was him saying he must ha’ come at wrong year. Now that’s as good as aught Ive heard o’ some time. If he’s going around asking for people – not friends of his, mind you – and he doesn’t know where they are nor what year they’ll be here – I reckon he’s got his work cut out.”

This is the point at which the strangeness begins. The coincidences – the feelings of uneasiness and imbalance felt by each character – except for Dr. Görtler. But how exactly did Dr Görtler manage to describe the guests so precisely? Increasingly we begin to be aware through the characters’ conversations, how jumpy they all seem, and how each seems to have a growing sense of déjà vu.(view spoiler)[Janet Ormund is convinced as soon as she and her husband drive up, that this simple, modest inn, so different from the grand hotels where they usually stay, is familiar to her. But how can she possibly have been there before? The schoolteacher Oliver Farrant is startled to realise that the couple who have just booked into the inn are his new employers. Walter and Janet Ormund are starting a school, and have recently appointed him as the new headmaster. The three have an awkward conversation, in which Oliver Farrant is clearly nervous, and comes across badly. In private, the Ormunds share their misgivings about the young man. (hide spoiler)]

That evening, Dr. Görtler joins the Ormunds and unnerves them by asking specific and strangely accurate questions about their feelings of déjà vu,

“But now I see that we do not understand ourselves, the nature of our lives. What seems to happen continually just outside the edge of our attention – the little fears and fancies, as you call them – may be all-important because they belong to a profounder reality, like the vague sounds of the city outside that we hear sometimes inside a theatre.”

After the German professor, Dr. Görtler, has gone to bed, Sally confuses and worries everybody even further, by telling the guests about the inexplicably successful predictions which the professor had made that afternoon about each of their identities. She has no time for Dr. Görtler’s theories,

“A lot of use it is you or anybody else saying what they’d do if they had their time over again – as I know only too well. A fat chance they have, haven’t they? Time moves on and it takes you with it, whatever you say.”

(view spoiler)[And we learn why she is running the inn with her father, and about her son, who is coincidentally at the Ormunds’ school. (hide spoiler)]

By Act two the scene has been set for a lot of tensions, and revelations. We learn that Dr. Görtler is a physicist, and conducting some sort of investigations, but we are not sure how knowledgable he is. Is he merely an observer, or a puppet-master? Does he have some foreknowledge as he appears? How can that be? The guests are increasingly unnerved and annoyed by his questions, yet intrigued despite themselves. (view spoiler)[We learn that Ormund is very unhappy,

“I suppose – in the last resort – you trust life – or you don’t. Well – I don’t. Theres something malicious . . . corrupt . . . cruel . . . at the heart of it. We don’t belong. We’re a mistake.”

Ormund: “But being rich isn’t simply the opposite of being poor. It’s not really worth much – being rich. Half the time there’s a thick glass between you and most of the fun and friendliness of the world. There’s something devilishly dull about most of the rich. Too much money seems to take the taste and colour out of things. It oughtn’t to do, but it does – damn it!”
Dr. Görtler: “But power – you have that, haven’t you?”
Ormund: “Yes, and that’s a very different thing.”
Dr. Görtler: “Ah! – you like power.”
Ormund: “Well, you get some fun out of it. I don’t mean bullying a lot of poor devils. but putting ideas into action. And not being at the end of somebody else’s bit of string.”

Dr. Görtler seems frequently to be behaving more like a psychiatrist than a physicist. His probing into Mr Ormund’s emotional state provokes him so far as to fetch a revolver from his car, and fire it into the ground. Walter Ormund protests that he was shooting a rat, but we suspect that this might have been a half-hearted suicide attempt. (hide spoiler)]


Halfway through the play we are beginning to suspect that we know how this may all end. If the professor has come here in order to change reality, what is it he is trying to prevent? We have already had a gunshot. (view spoiler)[Walter Ormund seems to be deliberately pushing his wife towards the schoolteacher Oliver Farrant, although both of them appear to dislike each other intensely. Even though Oliver Farrant and Janet Ormund have each gone out walking for the day, they went as far as to studiously avoid crossing paths or meeting each other all day. Why was this? Did they unconsciously feel a fatalistic sense that they were doomed to deceive Mr Ormund?

Sally resolves to ask Dr. Görtler to leave, and confronts him, telling him that he is upsetting all the guests. He protests that he was attempting to prevent a disaster, but agrees.

Oliver Farrant and Janet Ormund cannot contain their feelings for each other and as the clock chimes, they fall into each other’s arms without any conversation. Revealing their attraction to each other, they are both struck by a sudden implusive passion and conviction by each that this is true love. (hide spoiler)]
Perhaps each of the pair has been influenced by Dr. Görtler’s theories about the circular, or rather the spiral nature of time, and the autonomy we have over our own destiny. Here he expounds his doctrine of eternal return to them all,

“But time is not single and universal. It is only the name we give to higher dimensions of things. In our present state of consciousness, we cannot experience dimensions spatially, but only successively. That we call time. But there are more times than one – ”

There is recurrence and there is intervention,

“Some people, steadily developing, will exhaust the possibilities of their circles of time and will finally swing out of them into new existences. Others – the criminals, madmen, suicides – live their lives in ever darkening circles of their time. Fatality begins to haunt them. More and more of their lives are passed in the shadow of death.”

By the end of Act Two one of the characters has left. But another finds something which has apparently been left behind; something of significance. The final Act shows how all the events will come together.

(view spoiler)[Dr. Görtler’s forgotten notebook details both things which have happened, and things which are to happen. Oliver Farrant and Janet Ormund intend to leave and make a life together, even though Sally Pratt vehemently tries to dissuade them. However, Dr. Görtler returns for his notebook, and explains to them that he was brought there by a precognitive dream. He describes how the two of them would elope and live together, Walter Ormund would commit suicide, the school would fail and close, and as a consequence many lives would be ruined. Even the two of them would come to regeret what they had sacrificed. It is these events, detailed in his notebook, which convince Sally that such an action would be selfish and ultimately misguided. (hide spoiler)]

How will the play end? Several endings seem to have been telegraphed or hinted at throughout the play, yet the ending, in another twist which I have not explained under the spoiler, is muted and not what is expected at any point.

Dr. Görtler says,

“I have lived longer than you. I have thought more, and I have suffered more. And I tell you there is more truth to the fundamental nature of things in the most foolish fairy tales than there is in any of your complaints against life.”

“Yes, but you do not know – you will not understand – that life is penetrated through and through by our feeling, imagination and will. In the end, the whole universe must respond to every real effort we make. We each live a fairy tale created by ourselves.”


I have to admit to a fond liking for J.B. Priestley’s imaginative “Time Plays”. I share the author’s fascination with the physics and philosophy of time, and enjoy his exploring the different concepts in this way. But in fairness, although the play is very appealing, it does come across as rather dated. In particular, the simple-minded landlord, Sam Shipley, that “bit of old Yorkshire” and his fussy, interfering daughter both mistrusting the intellectual “foreigner” Dr. Görtler, can provide light humorous moments – but sometimes this feels a little off-key.

It is interesting as a precursor of the more sophisticated and adept “An Inspector Calls”. Several characters seems familiar. The blustering Walter Ormund is like an early version of Mr Birling, and Oliver Farrant is surely the theatrical ancestor of the rather weak Gerald Croft. In I Have Been Here Before, it is a German professor, who pokes and probes the motivations and misgivings of the other characters. Dr. Görtler is an early incarnation of the later “police inspector” Ghoul; he is an omniscient being, performing a social experiment on unfamiliar strangers, who are revealed ultimately to be intimately connected. There is an expertly controlled, mounting realisation and despair in “An Inspector Calls”, but here it is more muted; a feeling or a suggestion, in accordance with the sense of déjà vu, rather than of true horror.

Determinism: what is predestined, as opposed to free choice, is always a ripe subject for debate, but the author’s philosophical interest is rather too overt. His characters are all too clearly mouthpieces for the opposing arguments. People in general, or at least mere acquaintances as these were, do not behave in this way. Here the conversations are analysed and deconstructed into theories, expositions and explanations, and increasingly so nearing the end. We feel that in the main the characters are there to outline J.B. Priestley’s personal grappling with the concepts, and his own thinking, via his character of Dr. Görtler. Yet no doubt almost 80 years ago, this would have seemed startling and new.

According to J.B. Priestley, although the play was quite successful in London, and “often played both here and on the Continent”, I Have Been Here Before was “a disastrous failure” initially in New York, and he rewrote it several times,

“chiefly because it was very difficult to explain Ouspensky’s theory of recurrence on which the action was based,”

The author claims his play is “an excellent example of the stealthy edging away from naturalism”, asserting that “many of the speeches in the third act are far removed from conventional realistic dialogue, and yet nobody commented on this fact.”

I think however, that a contemporary audience would notice this. The spouting of hypotheses increases throughout the play, much as it does in some of his fellow Socialist thinker George Bernard Shaw’s plays. Agree or disagree as you will with the ideas and concepts, a play is not the best vehicle for this. So even though this play was intriguing and very enjoyable, I find it has to stay at a solid three star rating.

Recurrence ... and Intervention ...
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Published 06.10.2019

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J.B. Priestley

Have we all been here before?

One of the most prevalent signs that you are an old soul is this; You never wish to be in a physical confrontation with anyone. Not because of fear but simply because you have experienced this many many times, the lesson has been learned. And you no longer believe in violence as a means for resolving anything. Our time on earth is fleeting. It seems that one minute we are here and then gone. But what if we could come back, many times, and live a new life with new meaning.

3 Replies to “7 Signs Telling You That You Have Been Here Before”

The concept of an old soul or a soul that has been here before comes from the idea of reincarnation, or re-living a life cycle on Earth either as yourself or as another living being. The prior knowledge form your past lives may be stored somewhere in your memory, or maybe it is all forgotten. Rebirth and reincarnation can happen even without death. For each major transitional phase of our lives, we transform into new selves. You may have suffered a particularly traumatic event, but survived to tell your story to others. In the process, you became a different person from who you were before.

By Christopher Howse. If not, then in some royal court. The unusual thing about the past life that Joanna Lumley suspects she had is its modesty. The actress felt immense calm, she said this week, when she visited Ypres, where presumably her past self fell. This sort of feeling — having been here before and recognising something that means a lot — compels some people to think reincarnation must be true. I wonder.

The Universe appeared from a cataclysmic explosion So is there any truth in the theory that universes and civilisations existed before our own? Robert Matthews investigates. By Robert Matthews. The Big Bang is usually regarded as being the start of everything — even space and time. But new theories of space and time point to a radically different picture, in which the Big Bang was really a Big Bounce from an earlier universe.

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